(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

By the middle of the twentieth century, the canonization of Edgar Allan Poe had been accomplished, and the stories he devoted to the exploits of C. Auguste Dupin—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1845)—were assigned an honored place in his oeuvre, both for their intrinsic interest and for their significance in originating a major popular genre, the detective story. Ironically, the position of the genre itself has been more dubious. Generalizations about detective fiction have sometimes verged on contempt, as Edmund Wilson’s scathing and notorious “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” (1944) and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (1945) may illustrate. More commonly, the critical attitude has been condescension. Even the standard histories of the genre, Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1984) and Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder (1985), largely restrict their subject within the confines of popular literature; Symons, especially, treats scornfully all attempts to claim for detective fiction, as distinguished from what he calls crime fiction, the status of literary art.

There has been, to be sure, a countercurrent to these tendencies, and in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the genre is even acquiring academic respectability. Books published by academic presses have explored the subject with a seriousness rare in the past. John G. Cawelti’sAdventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (University of Chicago, 1976) articulated an aesthetic of formulaic fiction, including detective fiction, and suggested that art and popular culture need not be oppositional. Dennis Porter’s The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (Yale University Press, 1981) also made unembarrassed use of the word “art” in its exploration of the subject, even if the companion term, “ideology,” implied as well the sociological perspective within which academics have conventionally examined products of popular culture.

John T. Irwin’s The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story may profitably be examined within this history. It must immediately be observed, however, that this impressive and provocative book may profitably be approached from a number of different angles. Students of Poe, of the American Renaissance, of Jorge Luis Borges, and of literary relations within the Americas will find much to interest them here, as will those more generally interested in the workings of the creative imagination. The book is by no means only for specialists and is certainly not for specialists in popular culture who might dismiss Borges as highbrow.

Like Porter and Cawelti, Irwin wants to interrogate the status of the detective story as literary art. Positing as the criterion of the literary a capacity for generating an infinity of rereadings, Irwin asks how a form in which everything seems to point to the solution to a mystery can hold any further interest once the solution is revealed. (One might note here that one of the champions of detective fiction, the poet W. H. Auden, admitted that he found it impossible to reread a detective story.)

This issue provides an organizing question for Irwin as he explores the complex relationship of the nineteenth century American writer Edgar Allan Poe and the twentieth century Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. That Poe influenced Borges is a critical commonplace, but Irwin wants to go beyond the blandness of the traditional influence study to examine something more precise than a general influence. Irwin contends that in three detective stories—“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), “Death and the Compass” (1942), and “Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth” (1949)—Borges “doubles” the three Dupin stories of Poe, and on a basis of one to one. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the first of Borges’ stories, is keyed to the central structure of the second Dupin tale, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”; his second story, “Death and the Compass,” to the third Dupin tale, “The Purloined Letter”; and his third, “Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth,” to the first Dupin tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” (It is typical of the totalizing ingenuity of Irwin’s undertaking that he is prepared to tell readers exactly why Borges effected the cyclic permutation reflected in these relationships.)

In carrying out his project, Borges generated a series of repetitions and reversals of Poe’s originals. In the course of defining what Borges was about, a primary concern of the book, Irwin delineates Borges’ Poe: Poe as he existed in the mind of the later writer. The accomplishment of this task seems to require at least three subsidiary accomplishments. One must have a sense of Poe “in himself,” or at least as he might be perceived by a reader other than Borges; of Borges as more than the perceiver of Poe; and, since Irwin’s focus is on Poe and Borges within the genre of...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)